In 1922, the then tenant of Pittleworth, Sir Austin Harris, had workmen take down a section of the oak panelling in what is now the dining room; it may have been curiosity or it may have been an attempt to put electricity into the house. What they found stunned them: Tudor murals preserved under the panelling for over 300 years.
Dives and Lazarus: the stories within the murals
The murals cover two walls of the dining room: one wall is a repeat pattern of pomegranates. This dates it from the early 1500s: when Katharine of Aragon was the new young princess and queen. The pomegranate was her emblem and became fashionable — only to become very unfashionable after King Henry VIII’s divorce.
A second and more elaborate set of paintings adorn the second wall: they are a representation of the biblical story of The Rich Man and the Poor Man, Dives and Lazarus, and the date, 1580, is conveniently worked into it. The scene contains an elaborate depiction of the Royal Crest, with the lion of England and the dragon of Wales. The subject matter —remember that, while you feast, judgement awaits you in the afterlife — was a common theme for grand rooms at the time.
Politics and Pomegranates: Dangerous Symbolism
The murals are enormously detailed and provide fascinating evidence of Tudor life from food to hunting to clothing; however, they also reflect the fact that they were forged in a dangerous crucible of religion and politics. The Uvedale family were Catholic and known recusants by the 1580s. The fact that they did not choose to paint over the pomegranate motif when the second set of wall paintings were done, suggests loyalty to Katharine of Aragon and the Catholic cause: a dangerous thing to affirm in the reign of Elizabeth the First.
The Devil in the Detail
The murals repay endless looking: after thirty years, details still catch me by surprise. One particular shock was when we discovered the face of the devil in the mural on Easter Day! I have no idea what this means theologically speaking but I cannot but note that he is a dead ringer for Ralph Fiennes’s Lord Voldemort!
During the Jacobean period, the early 1600s, the paintings at Pittleworth were covered over. This was probably because they were increasingly unfashionable in this period (and panelling was warmer!). However, by leaving the panelling a good 9 inches from the paintings, they were astoundingly well-preserved.
The discovery of the paintings in 1922 caused considerable interest. Country Life magazine ran the story and the Victoria and Albert museum sent experts to photograph them. The conservation of the paintings was entrusted to Ernest Tristram, who would go on to be Professor Tristram and worked on paintings in Westminster Abbey.